My 33 1/3 book, on Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works Volume II, was the 5th bestselling book in the series in 2014. It's available at Amazon (including Kindle) and via your local bookstore. • F.A.Q.Key Tags: #saw2for33third, #sound-art, #classical, #juntoElsewhere: Twitter, SoundCloud, Instagram

Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

tag: voice

Why We Listen

I talk with Marc Kate about surface noise, classical motifs, and the reversal of Aphex Twin

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Major thanks to Marc Kate of the Why We Listen podcast for having included me in its ever growing catalog of conversations. My entry, released a few days ago, is the 35th in Kate’s Why We Listen series. Previous participants include many folks I admire, including Morgan Packard, Richard Chartier, Cara Rose DeFabio, Erik Davis, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Holly Herndon, Leyland Kirby, Bob Ostertag, Geeta Dayal, and Keith Hennessy.

For each episode of Why We Listen, Kate asks the guest to bring three pieces of music, and then you sit in his studio and listen to them together and talk about them. I selected a piece of turntablism sound art by Maria Chavez, “Kids- TRIAL 18 (Unfinished),” a work of classical minimalism by Madeleine Cocolas, “I Can See You Whisper,” and an Aphex Twin rarity “Avril 14th reversed music not audio.”

A direct link to the MP3 file is here: whywelisten.marckate.com. The iTunes link is here: itunes.apple.com. More on the episode at whywelisten.wordpress.com.

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Julianna Barwick’s Machine-Woman Interface

A track from her forthcoming album, Will

Part of the pleasure of the first track to be (pre)released from Julianna Barwick’s forthcoming album, Will, is how her voice merges with the synthesized sounds that accompany it. The piece opens with this slow mix of drone and scale. The drone pulses and the scale, tracing the shape of the pulse by moving up and down on repeat, puts soft pads against something even softer still. (According to NPR it’s a Moog synthesizer, the Mother-32.) And then comes her voice — her voices, really. Barwick’s breathy intonations come and go in looping layers, a folktronic canon. These echoes proceed for the length of the piece, which is titled “Nebula,” tracing the vast contours of an imagined cavern. It’s one of nine tracks on Will, and while “Nebula” is solo, the album features a range of guests: singer Thomas Arsenault (aka Mas Ysa), cellist Maarten Vos, and percussionist from Jamie Ingalls (Chairlift, Tanlines, Beverly). There’s also a video for “Nebula,” directed by Derrick Belcham and shot at Philip Johnson’s historic Glass House:

The album has a pre-release page at juliannabarwick.bandcamp.com. More from Barwick, who is based in Brooklyn, at juliannabarwick.com.

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Remixing the Radiophonic Workshop

Chris McAvoy goes meta with old BBC samples.

What better source of raw sound materials than a nearly 20-year-old documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, the legendary brain trust of electronic-music ingenuity? Chris McAvoy goes to town on samples from the 1979 production The New Sound of Music, transforming the Radiophonic’s own transformations, taking an old lampshade and an empty tin can and from them generating beats and textures, just as the workshop itself did. “Anything … could be doctored with the tape recorder,” says the narrator, before his voice itself is warped just shy of recognizability. It’s a testament to McAvoy’s activities that you can’t tell if the self-reflecting, hall-of-mirrors echoes imposed humorously on the following phrase were his own, or in the documentary: “Whatever this microphone picks up is being fed to this loudspeaker back to this microphone … round and round.”

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/chris-mcavoy. More from McAvoy, who’s based in Boulder, Colorado, at twitter.com/chmcavoy.

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La Voix Humaine

Cocteau, Poulenc, Duval, and technological art of the telephone

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Denise Duval sang passionately about broken telephone connections, about the way our technology can mimic, taint, and amplify human connections. She died a week ago, on January 25, the New York Times reported today.

A French soprano born in 1921, Duval is best known for her work with the composer Francis Poulenc. Foremost among the pair’s collaborations is the opera La Voix Humaine, based on the play by Jean Cocteau. La Voix Humaine is high on the list of essential viewing and listening if you’re interested in art informed by technologically mediated human interaction.

The opera tells the story of the end of a love affair. Expertly constructed, it unfolds as one half of a phone conversation. The other half takes place on the far end of the phone line, unheard by the audience. The woman is Elle, and Duval was the first to perform the role. There’s a filmed version of Duval’s performance, directed by Dominique Delouche, which uses another technology, television, to emphasize the creative constraints inherent in Cocteau’s vision: a woman, alone in a room, trying to navigate a failed love — and her own faltering psyche — using failing technology.

I spent a chunk of last year working on — and failing at — an extended essay about the intersection of art and technology that just never ended up going where I’d hoped it would. Only toward the end of the writing process, before I put it away half-finished, did I finally switch from wondering about the relationship between the artist and the technology and, instead, began to focus on the audience’s experience of technology. At that point I’d blown too much time and just couldn’t dedicate myself to it anymore, though I hope to get back to it at some point.

This morning, having read the news of Duval’s death over coffee, I was reminded of the centrality of that telephone in La Voix Humaine, not just to Elle, but to the audience of both the play and the opera. The play was first performed in 1930, the opera in 1958. By 1970, when Delouche’s filmed version was broadcast on television in France, the phone was long since not just an everyday but essential part of life. To witness Elle’s story in 1930 must have been a very different thing than in 1970, from the perspective of an audience’s experience of the phone as a lifeline. There is something very J.G. Ballard about La Voix Humaine, as if it’s taking place amid the narrative of his novel High Rise, like Elle lives in an apartment whose door the book’s narrator never happens to knock on.

Nicholas Muni

Eventually La Voix Humaine did leave the boudoir. For example, a staging by the Cincinnati Opera’s Nicholas Muni in 2003 re-situated Elle (soprano Catherine Malfitano, above) as the survivor of a car accident. We witness Elle wandering around the wreck while she tries to communicate with her former lover. The wreck isn’t merely a contrivance to switch to a cellphone. It’s part of the original story that Elle reveals her attempted suicide. In the Muni depiction, the scene of the accident serves as both setting and evidence. Of course, switching to cellphone in 2003 also made sense because the phone needed to cut off once in awhile, something far more common then — and today — on a cellphone than on a landline.

The lingering lesson of La Voix Humaine may be that if you’re making technological art, ask yourself if you are reflecting on the means by which that technology is infused in the lives of its audience.

The Delouche version with Duval is on YouTube in four parts. The image up top was colorized (and found at tutti-magazine.fr). The original is in black and white.

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Also on YouTube is an Ingrid Bergman (above) version of the play, from 1967.

And to bring things back around to electronic music, there’s an audio-only version of the play done for the BBC by Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, that was first broadcast back in 1998. It stars Harriet Walter, best known these days as Lady Shackleton on Downton Abbey and as the doctor who briefly but memorably tends to Chewbacca in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Human Voice is an important transitional work for Rimbaud, as it employs techniques he developed when making music to accompany cellphone conversations captured on scanners (hence his moniker), but applies them to prerecorded dialogue — or, in this case, monologue.

This first appeared in the February 2, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Vowels Accumulate Over Days and Months

An experiment in beading, accrual, and tonality by Steph Horak

Yesterday, on a brand new SoundCloud account, the artist Steph Horak posted a track of layered vocals, just tones, just soft vowels, that when played against each other yield a familiar, lovely, gently abrasive beading that sounds less like a choir of one and more like a glass harmonica played by an expert soloist. Her explanation is that it’s part of an art project that accrues and amasses individual tones over time on a regular basis.

Here is Horak’s description:

I am attempting to sing a note a day for a year because I want to know if my body holds a certain tension, or harmony, a resonant bias. Therefore, I record each day’s note in isolation, without hearing any of the previous days, and then I make a mix of the month. This is a somewhat indulgent side-project. This is not about singing in tune. This is about data. Trigger warning: People with absolute pitch may find this jarring to listen to.

The track is labeled “366 JANUARY 2016,” though it’s unclear how much time is accounted for, how many vowels over how many days.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/threehundredandsixtysix. More from Horak at her other SoundCloud account, soundcloud.com/sheisrevolting, and at stephhorak.wordpress.com and noisevagina.tumblr.com, the latter of which includes this intriguing sonified lipstick case:

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Horak works as part of the computing department at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she earned an MA in 2013. (Track found via a repost by soundcloud.com/leafcutterjohn.)

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